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animal research & pop fiction

Stephan Anagnostaras stephan at hannibal.psych.ucla.edu
Sun Jun 5 19:59:08 EST 1994

First, I doubt your strain of rats is really all that inbred, since
even the most inbred strain of rats aren't all that inbred (compared
to mice). What strain is it that you're talking about? If they
are albinos (i.e., Sprague-Dawleys, Holtzmanns, Fishers, Lewis, etc.),
I can make the same generalizability problems to your subjects as
you could make about stray dogs. For that matter, results from
inbred strains of animals may not even generalize to that animal,
never mind to humans.  This might easily be the case with any
experiment involving visual stimuli, since these rats can't see
well.  In any case, inbreeding would be a good idea if you 
actually knew what variables you are manipulating (which is
usually the case with highly inbred mice -- which often
differ from only one or two genes), but you usually don't.
All of the popular rats we use probably have certain proclivities
which make them yield some results which won't even generalize
across strains. This is a bad thing, usually, unless you
are actually studying the strain differences.  It is a shame for
your effect to only appear in one strain of rats.  If you had
picked stray rats, it is true you would have greater variation,
but your results would also not have a generalizability problem.

In any case, the fact is that dogs which you find on the street (or
at the pound) are also highly inbred.  You may consider it immoral
to use dogs from the pound, but it is not any more immoral than
raising the dogs in a laboratory.  Dogs raised in a laboratory
have deprived lives (which can alter their brains), so the
generalizability problem goes both ways.  In any case, experiments
which are done on strays (cats, for example, usually spinal
cord transection) probably are influenced very little or not at all
by the animal's environmental past.

So basically I disagree with you on the generalizability problem, however,
I still think most experiments on cats, dogs, and higher mammals are
generally immoral. On the other hand, this 'immorality,' however
tragic, must be weighed against the possible benefit of the research.
In medical science, this benefit is usually easy to measure, but in
pure research (which is usually the only way medical science can
eventually get any ideas) the benefit is not always clear, so
this issue can be debated a lot.  This is probably why rats, rather
than higher mammals, are more frequently employed in pure science. 

Finally, there is this issue about how we treat our rats, etc. Although
the guidelines are there, which should satisfy animal rights activisits,
the fact is that these are laxly enforced, particularly in regard
to animal anesthesia.  Although researchers would like for their
animals to be fully anesthetized, the safety margin of barbiturates
is small, and people would generally rather have their rats alive
than dead. I think this is a problem in general. The other issue is
post-surgical anesthesia, which is never (or very rarely) given to
rats.  I guess the root of the issue is that most people don't
think rats suffer. In my experience I would have to agree, they
don't seem to show signs of suffering, just acute fear.  However,
the long term effects of stress suggest that they suffer.  I
don't know what the situation is with anesthesia on higher mammals.

Anyway, this is getting too long,


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